Passing the trial
Conditions don't dampen great day for U.S. marathon runners
Posted: Saturday February 7, 2004 6:27PM; Updated: Saturday February 7, 2004 7:12PM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Talk about a pack of tough dudes. If local organizing folks had any sense, they'd have handed out badges of courage instead of medals. Water stops should have been converted to soup kitchens.
Think Green Bay Packer frostbite football in December. But take away the layers of clothing, healthy body fat and sideline heaters; instead, picture scrawny runners -- a brain-numbing few clad only in shorts and mesh singlets -- trekking 26.2 miles through city streets in temperatures that felt worse than 28 degrees.
Throw in some snowflakes at the finish -- frozen confetti, if you will -- and you have the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. We're talking horrific conditions for weeding out the best from the also-rans. But somehow, the favored Big Three of Alan Culpepper, Meb Keflezighi and Dan Browne managed the conditions and course in an incredibly efficient manner Saturday.
Forget that American men haven't been an Olympic medal threat in decades (Frank Shorter grabbed the last medal north of the border at the 1976 Montreal Games). What you need to know is Culpepper led the pack home in 2:11:42 -- the fastest Olympic trials time since Tony Sandoval's trials record 2:10:19 in 1980.
OK, let's say Culpepper enjoyed an advantage training in Colorado. Even so, he tore up this winter wonderland of a course -- clocking a negative split almost three minutes faster over the second half of the race.
Hellish conditions, yes. But of the 71 finishers, 13 crossed the line in personal bests -- none more impressively than fourth-place runner Trent Briney, who ran the fastest marathon of his life by more than 8 minutes.
A couple pretenders tried to steal the race early, but it was Brian Sell, a second-time marathoner, who established the pace and led into the 22nd mile. Spurred by the crowds on the downtown loop section of the course, Sell (eventually 13th overall) built a lead of more than a minute through 15 miles.
The pre-race favorites, though newcomers to the Birmingham event, played it smart and stuck together in a tight pack, taking turns blocking the wind.
"There was a moment there when we were getting concerned," Culpepper said. "We were looking around and wanted to go after [Sell], but we'd be taking the brunt of the wind. You didn't want to sacrifice yourself.
"Every time we tried to get going there was some factor -- weather, wind or turns. I think we all suffered somewhat from conditions."
Even the frontrunner wasn't a confident soul.
"Yeah, I was worried the whole time," Sell said. "Our plan was to run a 2:12 pace all the way through. I stuck to the plan, but the wind got to me."
In the end, though, everything came out clean.
The top five finishers ran below the 2:15 Olympic A standard, so the U.S. is comfortably assured of shipping three marathon men to Athens. The three, all accomplished track specialists, also seem certain to focus on the marathon rather than the Olympic 10,000 meters.
The only problem is that the team was selected in conditions more appropriate for the Winter Olympics rather than the Summer Games. As one official cracked, "We pick them in a freezer and send them off to compete in a microwave." Count on Athens being humid, upwards of 60 degrees warmer and the course an uphill climb.
But based on their Birmingham experience, the Big Three aren'tafraid to deal with adversity. The wind and cold temperatures sent them out sluggishly, clocking a pedestrian 5:20 first mile. Keflezighi almost didn't show because of training lost while battling a flu bug last month. And after working his way up to the third spot Saturday, Browne overcame late-race mental fatigue and heavy legs.
At the 23-mile mark, the 28-year-old West Point grad looked haggard and beat, running with a more pronounced body lean, his head bobbing side to side.
"That was the critical point for me in the race," Browne said. "My body was getting a little crampy. I knew I had two good competitors in front of me.
"To be honest, I ran this race for a purpose. I ran to make the team. I ran also to honor my West Point classmates who died over in Iraq. It kept me going. With three miles to go and my body feeling pretty rough, I thought of them."
It was that kind of a day -- a great one for American distance runners. Perhaps still not on par with the world's best, but the majority passed the trial for mental and physical toughness.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.